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NAME: Sanford Margalith


CAMPAIGNS: American Defense, Normandy, Southern France

Service in the U.S. Marines, Army and Navy—all before the age of 17— made Sanford “Sandy” Margalith a fitting subject for “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

In June 1941, the United States was still mired in an economic depression. Margalith’s family lived in the only place it could afford: the back rooms of his grandfather’s kosher butcher shop. Margalith had a troubled upbringing, but he wanted more out of life. He lied about his age, and 10 days after turning 15—on May 30, 1941—was sworn into the Marine Corps.

Boot camp was in the stifling heat of Parris Island, S.C., during the summer of 1941. As demanding as it was for a troubled kid, Margalith swore that boot camp was easier than life on the streets.

Margalith’s drill instructor (DI) evidently made an impression on him, because even after more than half a century he still remembered the man’s name: Pfc Spagnola. Although only a few steps removed from the recruits he trained, Spagnola was serious about his task and drilled the men constantly.

In 1945 Margalith ran into Spagnola in California. The former DI was with a group of Marines who had “cracked” after Iwo Jima. These were the days before post-traumatic stress disorder was an official diagnosis, and the former recruit was shocked to see 100 or so veteran Marines who had endured hell but were ashamed by what they had done in combat.

It wasn’t long before Margalith’s age was discovered, and he was embarrassingly plucked off the rifle range during an exercise and escorted away. Because he did not finish boot camp, Margalith never claimed to be a Marine, though he confided to friends that his proudest days came while wearing a Marine uniform.

Back on the street, Margalith found that no one would hire a 15-year-old. Also, with the Selective Service Act now in force, he knew that if he lied by saying he was 18, he wouldn’t be hired, since prospective employers would figure he’d be drafted soon anyway.

Desperate to do something, Margalith decided to lie about his age and don a uniform again. He volunteered for the Army in October 1941, eventually winding up in the 91st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 1st Armored Division.

After nearly making it through Marine boot camp, Margalith found the Army absurdly easy. Part of the problem was that they trained on unsuitable equipment: 75mm pack howitzers without the mules needed to pull them and revolvers that dated to the Spanish-American War. Margalith’s battery, in fact, did not receive its modern 105mm howitzers until just before being deployed overseas.

Margalith did not have the chance to train on the new state-of-the-art guns. In April 1942, as the men were getting ready to ship out, the Army found out he was too young and unceremoniously booted him out. Given what he had seen in his short time as a “dogface,” it came as no surprise to Margalith that his old outfit was slaughtered in its combat debut at Kasserine Pass in February 1943.

On the street again, Margalith bided his time before trying to sign up with another service. In December 1942, he decided to give the Navy a try, reasoning that by the time it discovered his real age, he would have turned 17—the legal enlistment age for the Navy.

Having already learned the ropes of military life and seemingly blessed with a high degree of innate intelligence, Margalith took a classification test after enlisting to determine what would be his best role in the Navy. He scored so well on the exam that he was assigned to one of the toughest service schools. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his class with the rank of petty officer 3rd class.

Margalith was assigned to the amphibious forces on a landing ship, tank (LST). He finally left the States in February 1944 and quickly learned about the rigors of life at sea. During a submarine attack on his convoy, Margalith nearly froze to death when someone forgot that he was outside in the temporary conning tower.

Having survived his first near-death experience, PO3 Margalith was then reminded of the vagaries of military justice. Shortly after reaching England and still suffering the aftereffects of the outside cold, he fell into a deep sleep and missed an all-hands call to air bedding. When the ship’s executive officer learned that Margalith had missed the formation, the petty officer was brought up on court-martial charges.

Margalith protested, and the captain told him he knew he was innocent, but he could not undermine his executive officer. Found guilty, Margalith was busted to seaman and transferred to a small boat unit in Cornwall. He was assigned as coxswain of a landing craft, vehicle and personnel (LCVP), even though he had never been trained in its operation. Well aware that these diminutive wooden craft would be at the forefront of any invasion, Margalith did what he could to quickly learn about his new responsibilities.

At the end of May 1944, Margalith was hospitalized in Falmouth with a bad case of shingles, which the doctors said was due to fatigue. He ran away in time to land troops in Normandy. Later he lost his boat in the invasion of southern France, its hull damaged by a B-24 that had dropped its bombs prematurely. He survived the war but, still angered over his treatment on his first ship, decided not to make a career of the Navy.

Forever restless, Margalith knew he would now have to make his own way in the world, and that he would need to complete the education he had abandoned at 15. He planned to use his GI Bill benefits to accomplish this, but rather than sit by idly and wait for school to start, he got his merchant seaman’s papers and sailed on an Esso tanker to Venezuela. He then joined the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi during Israel’s war of independence.

Margalith went on to finish four years of high school in 18 months. College followed, where he majored in philosophy. Given his rich life experience, it wasn’t surprising that he would end up writing for a living. He now enjoys a comfortable retirement in California.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.